On Competence

A girl of about seven with short black hair in a homespun garment, spinning cotton on a single spindle
A little girl in Peru trying, in vain, to teach me how to spin cotton. Photo by Glenn Shepard.

As human civilization becomes ever more technologically complex, the average competence of each person declines. When a society operates using a suite of technologies that a single adult can learn in his or her lifetime—building a house from scratch, farming, spinning cotton, making medicines, having babies, hunting, fishing, singing and dancing—then it is possible to attain a high level of competency in nearly every major task an adult may be called upon to do.

In the highly specialized western society in which I and perhaps you live, this is not the case. Most of us are completely inept at most things. I cannot build a house, or farm, or hunt very well, or fish very well, or sing or play any instruments or do virtually anything well except write. I needed expert help to have my babies and my one attempt at spinning cotton, in the Peruvian Amazon, brought my audience of skilled indigenous people to tears of helpless laughter. Most of us are in this boat. If we can program software, we can’t repair a lawnmower. If we can repair a lawnmower, we can’t make a decent omelet or pass a history test or do even a cursory tango. Most of us suck at most things.

Nevertheless, our admiration for competence is undiminished. We are impressed with people who can weld or make their own beer or do that thing with a frying pan where you flip everything by tossing it into the air. Our cinematic heroes are usually hyper-competent, from James Bond to Jason Bourne to superheroes and wariors. I like nothing more than to watch a bomb-disarmament or bank heist or car-chase trick driving, especially if the person doing the difficult thing never breaks a sweat. I think this admiration is in our nature. And the more traditional or concrete the task, the more we seem to admire competence in that task—to the point where we have begun teaching ourselves truly anachronistic things as a kind of competence-play: pressing cider, sewing or knitting our own clothes in a world where new ones are a tenth of the price of the unprocessed fabric or yarn, canning beets, flint-knapping, and so on.

If, like me, you are physically clumsy and if, like me, your job mostly involves going clickety-click on your computer, you may feel your own perpetual incompetence especially acutely. In addition to things I daydream about that I’ve never even tried (SCUBA diving, surfing, elk hunting, partner dancing) there are so many things I can “do” but do exceptionally poorly, including eating with chopsticks, any yoga pose that requires balance, swimming, running, art, music, home or auto repair, foreign languages, sports, packing smaller objects into a larger object, remembering where I put things, cooking, riding a bicycle and—let me put my cards on the table—driving. When my husband and I were first dating I was too vain to wear a bicycle helmet but he begged me to start because I crash constantly. He never wears a helmet, by the way, because he’s good at riding a bicycle. He can also do that frying pan flip thing. And cook.

A pan full of cookies that all melted together into one big soupy blob.
These were supposed to be chocolate chip cookies.

Incompetence is exhausting and embarrassing. I seem to spend my life sweeping up broken glass, dabbing at stains on my shirt with my napkin, and getting lost in my hometown. I ruin dinner at least once a week, mostly because I mess up the timing. I cannot wear any hairstyle more complicated than a pony-tail. Forget multi-tasking, I can barely single-task, if the task involves operating in three dimensions. This is likely the reason I became a writer. Writing is 2D. You string the words along, one after the other, and you don’t need any kind of balance, spatial reasoning, muscular strength, hand-eye-coordination or physical grace whatsoever. Then again, if you know anything about writers, you know that the majority secretly believe themselves to be lousy at it and regularly wake up at 3:00 AM anxiously wondering when everyone else will figure out they’ve been conned. I count myself among the majority in this respect.

Incompetence also frequently fills me with anger. Recently I spent the afternoon pruning a half dozen wildly overgrown climbing roses. I had watched several YouTube videos on the subject and consulted the Western Garden Book. I still didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I was convinced that all the canes I was carefully pruning to the right length on an upward-facing bud were rootstock anyway, and would produce at most a few simple, short-lived roses. And the roses kept hurting me, kept stabbing me with their thorns and drawing blood, because I was not deft enough to avoid them. I started weeping—not out of sadness or pain but out of pure rage. Why should I be so bad at everything? Why should nature and nurture have produced such a useless person? I can’t even reliably produce a properly soft-boiled egg or apply eyeliner.

As children, my youngest brother and I used to speculate that had we been alive during the Paleolithic we would never have made it to adulthood. Weak, small for our ages, sickly, inattentive—we would have been saber-tooth cat food.

All of us must live with the fact that we are incompetent at some things, since there are now too many things for one human to master. A few of us must live with the fact that we aren’t really competent at anything.

But being human isn’t all canning beets or surfing or pruning climbing roses. A core part of being a human is our relationships with other humans, relationships often built upon cooperation, mutual assistance, division of labor. A purely competent woman wouldn’t need anyone else and might spend her life alone. I have found people in my life who help me. My husband chops onions for me; my brothers and father fix my car; my mother mends my clothes. I eat the ducks that others shoot, the omelets that others flip. If I am competent at anything, it is in maintaining these relationships. I suppose that is social competence. Maybe during the Paleolithic the other members of our group would have saved my me and brother from the saber tooth cat because they liked having us around. Individual incompetence means we need each other, and that need is the origin of the love between humans that makes life worth living.

Even so, I wish I were a better swimmer.

P.S. During the writing of this essay, I managed to spill an entire bottle of cranberry juice inside my purse.

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4 thoughts on “On Competence

  1. I love this post. I feel incompetent at so many things. But I love how I now think making connections is a kind of skills, as it witnessing and appreciating others’ skills, all because of this very competent (and lovely) essay!

  2. It’s always good to be reminded that, incompetent as I am in most things, I’m not alone in this feeling.

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